People have no time for angels these days.
Why do good people die while bad people live? It’s a rhetorical question that Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling) asks himself in response to his idealistic friend Stephan Labude’s (Albrecht Schuch) optimistic belief that an intelligent and compassionate world could thrive if only our citizens would find the strength to become those things in the face of selfishness ego. Jakob scoffs at the idea not because he thinks his friend is wrong, but because he’s skeptical as to whether that utopian ideal is even possible. Is it pessimism or realism? Is there a difference? He’s already survived one world war in Germany—and still suffers from PTSD. How can he then afford to believe in what feels like a fantasy? Love might still open his heart to the possibility.
Unfortunately, we meet Jakob at the tail end of the Weimar Republic. Any thawing that may occur after a fateful collision with aspiring actress Cornelia Battenberg (Saskia Rosendahl) is going to be short-lived at best. But while the Nazis are obviously finding their footing and growing in strength (from swastika pamphlets on walls to uniformed men accosting civilians on the street), they aren’t necessarily the antagonists in Jakob’s story. Maybe it’s pride. Maybe it’s the same fate that brought Cornelia in his life only to inevitably take her away. Maybe it’s life itself—Jakob’s second job alongside writing. Or perhaps it’s him. A man who cannot seem to get out of his own way. A man so good, talented, moral, and naïve that getting beaten down becomes destiny.
Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde [Fabian: Going to the Dogs], Dominik Graf‘s cinematic adaptation (co-written by Constantin Lieb) of Erich Kästner‘s semi-autobiographical novel (published in censored form in 1931, banned and burned by the Nazis, and subsequently re-released in full eighty-two years later), is a three-hour character-driven epic depicting what it’s like for an everyday person to cope with the volatility of something as destructive as Hitler’s rise to führer. Before political opponents were silenced and the Jewish population shot or sent to concentration camps, the reality of where this country was heading couldn’t help but affect its people irrevocably. Whether something as small as supply chain issues (weaker coffee) or damning as economic turmoil (a recent rash of layoffs), Jakob has a front row seat.
And it comes without warning. Look no further than a brilliant opening sequence down in a present-day subway tunnel. The camera pushes through commuters as they walk to the next train or towards the stairs, the mass of humanity eventually thinning out until only one person is left in frame as a newcomer descends those same steps in period-specific clothing. From modern advertisements to Nazi propaganda, the look and feel of the setting itself turns on a dime as we rise to meet Jakob on the road above, bent over and hyperventilating. Just because we are alive doesn’t mean the nightmare didn’t happen. Just because Jakob has his 80-mark a month apartment and cushy job writing copy for cigarette ads doesn’t mean he didn’t witness atrocities.
The question is how you absorb what happened and learn from its impact. In his case, Jakob has become a sort of pacifist (he refuses to shoot when Labude teaches Cornelia) cynic who numbs his pain with a hedonistic nightlife that always ensures he’s late for work the next morning. He hides behind convenience and a notebook, constantly writing down ideas for a novel that he refuses to ever start while winding his way through brothels and bars with a nihilistic attitude towards the concept of consequences overall. Only when he meets Cornelia does he take pause. It could be the coincidental nature of their overlapping lives (Kästner effectively covers his narrative conveniences with thematic necessity) or Cupid’s arrow, but she has finally given him purpose.
This isn’t a fairy tale, though. It’s a dog-eat-dog life that’s growing more and more strained as the political climate stifles discourse and debate (the comparison to America right now and its rise in white supremacy is scary). Either you put your nose to the grindstone and watch life pass you by or you revel in debauchery and pass it by instead. Jakob tries to keep a hand in both, but the times themselves refuse to comply. He’s fired. The knowledge that people like the outspoken Labude are being taken off the streets without warning becomes impossible to ignore. And he must worry about more than just himself with his mother (Petra Kalkutschke) visiting and Cornelia making a go at acting under the wing of a domineering benefactor.
What is he to do? Be the barrier that ruins the dreams of the people he loves? Or the altruistic martyr that sets them free? That air of romance is tainted by lies of omission and pragmatic decisions that must be made in an instant. Bullies like Labude’s colleague at the University of Berlin or the waitstaff at the café they frequent become emboldened with the power accrued by the hateful bigotry they’ve embraced as a personality. Jakob sees it all first-hand, trying to become a selfless savior only to learn he’s little more than a powerless bystander who’s long since given up on his difference-making talent. Not that writing a book would have changed anything besides getting him killed. It would have been something, though.
Suddenly the places he used to go at night are gone. The avantgarde scene pushed underground so the eccentrics can feel safe from the fascists above. There’s a wild assortment of characters—people made to wear masks in public so as not to risk being outed as “others” to spies and secret police. Graf lets the mix of humor and drama inherent to this duality shine, effortlessly shifting between tones with the help of two narrators (one male, one female) that give the whole a storybook feel as Jakob struggles to reclaim balance. My favorite side player is the sex-addicted Irene Moll (Meret Becker) constantly looking to bring him into the fold, her progression succinctly exposing Nazism’s affect on the wealthy elite right along with the unemployed poor.
Jakob exists in the middle: too resourceful to be homeless and too unambitious to strive for more. Money isn’t the key to happiness anyway. Just look at Labude. Love might be enough to weather the impending storm, though—if the love he finds proves real. Even that comes with strings and compromises that his pride can’t bring himself to make. So, Jakob sleepwalks through it all, too lucid to ignore what he sees and too defeated to act until it might prove too late. Schilling is perfectly cast, delivering a performance that sustains both the weight and wit of the writing. Add Graf’s stylistic approach with changing film stock and dream/memory montages and you get a memorably tragic romance between man and hope in an era of hopelessness.
[1-3] ©Lupa Film / Hanno Lentz